Something There Is in Nature That Doesn’t Love a Wall*

Permaculturists aren’t made quickly. You don’t walk into a permaculture intensive one day and pop out 72 hours later as an instant professional.

No surprise there, when you consider that those 72 hours are basically spent learning how to observe, recognize, and replicate natural patterns and living ecosystems to feed and nurture humans, plants, and wildlife…and how to apply these same natural principles to human society. How to play God, in other words, in a creative, loving, restorative way. So you evolve. You germinate. You water your little bit of knowledge with more courses and workshops. And after a long while – or maybe a short while – you send up your knowledge into a sprout of action, see how it survives, then extend another sprout of action  later on. And you keep on sending out sprouts. And for each new recipient of the Permaculture Design Certification (PDC for short), all the sprouts look different.

I earned my PDC in 2010, in Vermont, through the Earth Activist Training…and emerged, like most brand-new permies, dazed and glazed with all the information I’d absorbed. But the basic principles – observing the land before I made changes to it, making use of the existing ecosystem and features and incoming influences of the property, working with natural processes instead of against them – partnering with the land, the sunlight, the wind, the water – stuck with me as I began to develop a deepening permaculture perspective that year…

….and the next, and the next, and the next….I was observing the land, I said, but very little meaningful work got done on the land during those years! Meanwhile, I was connecting with other permaculturists and supporting their growing businesses with my work as a marketing writer.

Then, this year, it all started coming together.

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The Leaning Wall of Westgate

It started with a wall. My uphill neighbor’s wall, to be exact, the one that held his driveway in place and kept it from sliding into my side yard. The wall that was bulging, cracking, splitting, and leaning like the Tower of Pisa when it wasn’t seeping water into my yard. The wall that – fortunately – was covered with ivy and honeysuckle vines, because they were basically all that was holding it up.

That wall. The one my neighbor’d been talking about replacing for the past 10 years. And this was the year it looked like it might happen.

But of course, it wasn’t that simple! The wall was punctuated by weep holes, and they wept often enough to show that there was something else causing the driveway to sink and the wall to bulge.

In a word…WATER.

Water that would need, somehow, to be managed. Water that – contrary to what my husband and I had originally thought –  wasn’t due to runoff from neighboring houses.

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The pipe emerging from my neighbor’s garage

Over the past month, as I’ve moved from observation to research, I’ve learned that those weep-holes, and that terra-cotta pipe that ran under our yard and disappeared under my neighbors’ garages, were evidently efforts to control a seasonal underground stream.

Like most of the 1930’s-era underground terra-cotta pipes in our neighborhood, it had evidently been breached, blocked, and/or broken, so its water, now fed by the weep-holes and runoff from the steep, semi-wild hill at the back of our yard, occasionally inundates my property. That would explain why my yard turns into Camp Swampy in spring rains, and my basement into a murky indoor wading pool whenever the sump pump fails.

Beyond my house, the stream builds in size on its hidden way downhill, until it ultimately meets a larger stream at bottomland, where the combined flows flood out a block of basement apartments with every hurricane.

In other words, the input of water onto my little property was much, much greater than I’d ever imagined.

The next question was – what to do with it?

* Title misquoted with apologies from Robert Frost’s timeless poem.

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